On the March and February issues:
The ‘Nakba’ Narrative
To the Editor:
A thought occurred to me while reading Sol Stern’s article on the Nakba narrative (“The Truth About the Palestinian ‘Catastrophe,’” March). It was my understanding that the initial use of the word “Nakba” was by the writer George Antonius in his 1938 book The Arab Awakening. And Antonius was referencing the catastrophe of not achieving a Greater Syria. In 1920, the Arabs of southern Syria suddenly found themselves cut off from their motherland, and a new and unwanted foreign identity was imposed on them by the European conquerors. Suddenly they were told they were Palestinians, denizens of Palestine—an entity with which they had no connection.
Philip Hitti, the Arab historian, had also stated under the Peel Commission that there was never a land entity called Palestine. So it seems the original use of the word “Nakba” referenced Syria, not the 1948 War of Independence for Israel.
To the Editor:
Sol Stern’s article is a well-documented and well-written analysis of a simple truth: A Judenrein Israel is still the core organizing principle of all three Palestinian political movements.
To the Editor:
In Europe and the United States, the Nakba-victim myth has gain-ed strength and legitimacy because so many in media and government have turned a blind eye to the truths of the region.
The manipulation behind the Nakba framing is supplemented by the evil of the Palestinian Authority’s “pay-for-slay” program of rewarding the families of suicide bombers. The current U.S. administration has decided to work around the Taylor Force Act and provide funding not to the PA directly, but to UNRWA, which is not mentioned in the Taylor Force Act.
Why would they do this? Cynthia Ozick once wrote an article titled, “All the World Wants the Jews Dead.” We may find the answer there.
To the Editor:
Sol Stern’s “The Truth Behind the Palestinian ‘Catastrophe’” is a timely and detailed reminder of the origins of the pernicious myth of the Palestinian Arab “nakba,” or catastrophe of dispossession by Zionist Jews. Stern correctly terms it “perhaps the most persistent big lie of the past 75 years.”
In fact, it’s even bigger than he describes. The genuine, often ignored, catastrophe resulted from Palestinian-Arab anti-Jewish, anti-British terrorism from 1936 to 1939. That violence induced British authorities to nearly close Mandatory Palestine, established by the League of Nations to be the Jewish national home and haven, to further Jewish emigration. But for this catastrophe imposed on them by the Arabs of Palestine, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe might have found haven.
And it’s worth noting that the figure Stern gives for Palestinian-Arab refugees—700,000 from “their ancestral homes”—is probably inflat-ed. Frequent Arab migration into the growing Jewish areas of Mandatory Palestine led the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to grant refugee status to any who claimed even two years’ residency in what had become Israel. Further, some reportedly moved from camp to camp and were most likely being double-counted.
To the Editor:
Thank you so much for publishing this well-written, well-documented article debunking the myths around the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. I only hope that the truth communicated in the article can be spread widely in academic and other spheres. We watch daily as the Nakba narrative is promoted, without any mention of the Arabs’ initiation of violence and their repeated rejection of forming their own state. It is distorted, manipulative, and, frankly, frightening.
New Haven, Connecticut
Sol Stern writes:
I appreciate all the reader responses to my article. However, a few correctives are in order.
Simon Firer’s suggestion that the Arab nationalist writer George Antonius used the term ‘Nakba’ to describe the failure to achieve Syrian independence after World War I is not well founded. The word doesn’t appear in Antonius’s 1938 book The Arab Awakening and would be irrelevant to my article even if it did. I was writing specifically on the false Arab and Palestinian narrative about the creation of Israel, first articulated in 1948 by the Syrian-Arab academic Constantine Zurayk. Eric Rozenman writes that my article “inflated” the number of Palestinian-Arab refugees created during Israel’s War of Independence. But the approximate figure of 700,000 I cited is the consensus among virtually every historian of the 1948 war. If Mr. Rozenman is aware of a more accurate source, I certainly would like to hear about it. Aside from these minor factual points, I share with all the letter writers the sense of outrage that the false Nakba narrative continues to be accepted by many people in America and the West who ought to know better.
To the Editor:
How can Eli Lake write an accounting of the war in Iraq that doesn’t include an examination of (or even a reference to) the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed in that war (“The Iraq War, 20 Years Later,” March)? Instead, he used the space to discuss the number of Iraqis with a cellphone plan.
This is precisely the dehumanization of Middle Eastern life that is at the core of all our “adventurism.” We—the United States and the West—act on others, based on what metrics of success or security we deem appropriate. They—Iraqis, Afghans—are barely footnotes, if they make the conversation at all.
Charlie J. Johnson
To the Editor:
Perhaps Eli Lake should consider General Anthony Zinni’s opinion of the war in Iraq. He was the head of Central Command and commanded forces in Africa and the Middle East. He had access to all the relevant intelligence, and no one involved has more credibility. General Zinni commanded Special Operations in Iraq before the war. Zinni has claimed that figures such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Paul Wolfowitz were untruthful in what they communicated about the war. And he used the term “dereliction of duty” in reference to the 2011 U.S. withdrawal, for which George Bush set the date.
To the Editor:
I enjoyed Eli Lake’s article about the Iraq War. However, he might have mentioned that American forces did in fact find some 5,000 chemical warheads in Iraq. C.J. Chivers documented this in the New York Times on October 14, 2014, in an article titled “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Wea-pons.” Are there more such weapons still hidden inside some mountain? I hope not.
Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey
Eli Lake writes:
Charlie J. Johnson might consider two problems with focusing on the overall death count of Iraqis since 2003. The first is that any overall number obscures who was responsible for the killings. Most Iraqi deaths in this period were at the hands of other Iraqis. The U.S. military and its coalition allies were the only armed force on the ground seeking to prevent the competitive ethnic cleansing, which of course I acknowledged in the essay. The second problem is that there is no consensus on this figure.
I don’t follow his second criticism. I think the anti-war crowd treats Iraqis as footnotes because they rarely acknowledge their suffering under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.
I am not familiar with General Zinni’s specific remarks about the Bush administration before the Iraq war, but I would urge Lenny Lutz to read Melvyn Leffler’s new history of this period, Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq. With the benefit of hindsight, he is able to reconstruct the policy decision to go to war in 2003, and he does not find evidence of deliberate deception.
Regarding Steve Maricic’s point, I actually wrote about the unexploded warheads a few years before the Times, for the New York Sun. I didn’t include this information because the buried shells are not really the same as a stockpile of chemical weapons.
American and Israeli Jews Cont’d
To the Editor:
In your pages, Elliott Abrams designated me as one of the American Jewish “hysterics” whose support for Israel as a Jewish state is more feeble than my Upper West Side liberalism (“Jewish Hysterics and Israel’s New Government,” February). In particular, he criticized me because I stopped reciting the standard prayer for the State of Israel, following the inclusion in the coalition of the Religious Zionist Party and its ministers, who are indeed self-described fascists (Betzalel Smotrich) and convicted racists and terrorism accomplices (Itamar Ben-Gvir). He wonders whether I would shed my “neutrality” and pray for Israel if it were attacked by Hezbollah.
Constructive criticism about my position is welcome. But Mr. Abrams has distorted the case. Permit me to set this record straight.
Everyone who actually attends Ansche Chesed knows that we pray for Israel every Shabbat without fail, both before and after the recent election. Instead of the usual text, however, recently we have prayed for Israel by reciting Psalm 122, which for thousands of years has exhorted Jews to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” I made this change because, in my best judgment, too many of our members would be unable to pray with full hearts for “divine light, truth, and good counsel” for the Religious Zionist Party ministers of this government. In 2019, AIPAC refused to meet Ben-Gvir, calling him “racist and reprehensible.” They were right then. I hope they remember now.
There is nothing neutral about my Zionism and nothing insufficiently Jewish about our prayer. Actually, I provided my community with a way to daven for Israel with full hearts. If I have stirred up any con-troversy, perhaps the appropriate headline for our mad polarized times would be: Rabbi Condemned for Saying Tehillim.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky
Ansche Chesed Synagogue
New York City
Elliott Abrams writes:
It is worth reminding readers of the text of the standard Conservative movement prayer for the State of Israel (taken from the Rabbinical Assembly website):
“Avinu shebashamayim, stronghold and redeemer of the people Israel: Bless the State of Israel, [that it may be] the beginning of our redemption. Shield it with Your love; spread over it the shelter of Your peace. Guide its leaders and advisers with Your light and Your truth. Help them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the hands of those who defend our holy land. Deliver them; crown their efforts with triumph. Bless the land with peace and its inhabitants with lasting joy. And let us say: Amen.”
It remains entirely unclear why even fierce critics of the current Israeli government would not wish that G-d “guide its leaders” with “light” and “truth” and give them “good counsel.” Psalm 122 prays for peace but does not pray for guidance to Israel’s leaders or for the IDF soldiers who defend the State of Israel. If Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s Zionism is not “neutral,” to use his term, he and his congregants should have been able to say the standard prayer with no hesitation. Instead of cancelling it, he might better have given a sermon explaining why political criticism of the current Israeli cabinet is no reason to junk the Conservative movement’s prayer.
There are myriad ways for American Jews to protest Israel’s government and politics, for example in demonstrations and petitions. Rabbi Kalmanofsky chose the worst possible way—bringing politics into the synagogue, onto the pulpit, and into the congregation’s prayers. Doing so, he gave in to these “mad polarized times” and helped make them even worse. That is what I criticized, and it is worth criticizing.
On Chekhov and God
To the Editor:
As an admirer of Joseph Epstein’s essays, I was surprised to find myself in stark disagreement with his recent piece about Chekhov (“God, Literature, and Anton Chekhov,” March). Epstein finds fault with Chekov’s ambiguous endings, one of which he was wrong about. “The Lady with the Lap Dog,” perhaps Chekhov’s most famous story, does not end with the text that he cited.
By the end of “The Lady with the Lap Dog,” in fact, the plane has landed—to use Epstein’s own metaphor. For in this last scene, Chekov paints a picture of the unequivocal situation in which an adulterous couple will universally find themselves, period. Moreover, it is not the purpose of a short story to judge. The span of a short story does not lend itself to depicting the full-circle moral judgments that Epstein values. A novel, in its length, alternatively, may show a character receiving his comeuppance and being left to pick up the pieces.
The greatness of the ambiguous “The Lady with the Lap Dog” is in its echoing the uncertainty of life. The reader is left to imagine both characters’ fates, an imagining that I believe can be as rich as the aftereffect of reading a great tour de force novel. Chekov leaves it in the air for his readers to determine whether his characters are capable of finding meaning in life. And I would argue that this is a godly pursuit—and it’s one of the top reasons that I enjoy teaching and leading discussions of literature in creative-writing workshops.
Mary Laura Stagno
To the Editor:
As always, Joseph Epstein’s writing is entertaining and thoughtful. But I don’t think that either he or Isaac Bashevis Singer make much of a case that the very talented cannot be atheists. Instead, they just assert it.
Joseph Epstein writes:
Mary Laura Stagno and I disagree about the ambition possible in short stories. I believe superior short stories may and often do judge characters and find moral resolution; she does not. But above and beyond this, we disagree over the question of whether verisimilitude, which was Chekhov’s spe-cialty in his stories, is the same as truth. I believe it isn’t; I gather Professor Stagno believes it can be.
Joel Fradin claims that neither Isaac Bashevis Singer nor I make the case that talented people, writers especially, cannot be atheists. He would have made his own case by naming a few truly great writers who were atheists. In composing my essay, I could not think of any great writers who in their works did not imply a higher power at work in the fate of their characters. Hence I found Isaac Bashevis Singer’s generalization not merely provocative but compelling.